On March 24, 2020, Carlota Isabel Salinas Pérez, a leader of the Colombian women’s rights group Organización Femenina Popular, was murdered by a group of armed men in front of her house in San Pablo. Salinas Pérez had been organizing funds to help vulnerable community members affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Her assassination highlights the adverse impact of the pandemic on women social leaders in conflict settings. In these contexts, state institutions are often already weak—hampered by insecurity, low capacity, and fragmented authority. The pandemic, far from leading to a halt in violence, appears to be exacerbating these patterns. New data suggests that in most conflict countries, organized armed violence has either risen or remained at prepandemic levels. At the same time, reduced activity by state actors and humanitarian organizations has created space for armed groups to violently expand their social control.

Recent events in Colombia demonstrate the specific risks of this crisis for female activists and social leaders. The demands on their care labor have skyrocketed, yet they also face heightened risks of violent attacks. The limited protections they are normally offered by state institutions and international organizations have effectively disappeared.

Armed Groups Expanding Control

Although Colombia is technically a post-conflict state, organized violence in the country continues. Particularly in rural territories, guerrilla movements, paramilitary successor groups, and narcotraffickers clash with one another and with state security forces as they aim to expand their control over illicit economies, including illegal cocaine production and gold mining. In these areas, the presence of state institutions remains limited, and citizens lack access to formal systems of justice and social protection.

Julia Zulver
Julia Zulver is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Institute of Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies.

As they seek to consolidate their power, these armed groups target social leaders who mobilize community resistance to their violent territorial and social control. Since the signing of Colombia’s peace accords in 2016, the think tank INDEPAZ has registered the murders of hundreds of activists and demobilized guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC), including 107 assassinations of social leaders in 2020 alone.

This wave of violence affects women and men differently. The logic of militarized masculinity that guides these armed groups does not look kindly on women who transgress traditional gender roles. While male social leaders are more likely to be murdered, women leaders are often targeted in highly gendered ways, including sexual violence and threats to their families. Women who empower local communities face particularly severe risks.

Over the past few weeks, new reports suggest that armed groups are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic and reduced state presence in rural areas to expand their illegal activities. Groups appear to be increasing their violent incursions in areas along the Venezuelan border with the likely aim of accessing and controlling illicit profit-making opportunities. They are enforcing their own stringent quarantine rules to limit citizens’ mobility, initiating new confrontations with rival armed actors, and reinforcing their targeting of social leaders. The latter trend is particularly worrisome: in some Colombian communities, social leaders are the only people offering humanitarian assistance to desperate populations.

Heightened Risks

The crisis reinforces and intensifies vulnerabilities for women social leaders. Preliminary analysis points to four risk factors that directly impact their safety during the pandemic. Although these risks also apply to men, they are particularly acute for women, whose social situation in territories dominated by machista power dynamics is particularly vulnerable.

First, women social leaders normally use their in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of violence in their territories to develop holistic, grassroots security plans. For example, they create gendered risk assessments when they travel in rural areas and develop women’s safety committees in partnership with international organizations and state institutions. The pandemic, the resulting restrictive lockdowns, and the near-total withdrawal of national and international support have disrupted their ability to create plans and protocols to protect themselves.

Second, women around the world have seen their duties of care increase as they are stuck at home with families and children to feed, educate, and look after. Women social leaders have the added burden of taking care of their communities and filling in the gaps left by state actors. Across Colombia, they are taking informal censuses to ascertain the needs of community members, sourcing and distributing food and supplies, and mobilizing their communities to make demands on the government. All of these activities involve leaving the confines of their homes and exposing themselves to potential violence at the hands of armed groups.

Third, even women leaders and activists who remain in their homes are at risk: as a result of the lockdowns, it is easier for armed actors to find, locate, and harm women social leaders with total impunity (as was the case with Salinas Pérez). As one leader in the southwestern department of Putumayo reported in April during an interview with this author, “If you stay in your house, they come to your door, call your name, and kill you right there.” She is observing an increased brazenness by armed groups at a time when “the state offers us no protection.”

A final complicating factor is female activists’ lack of access to justice and protection. If women want to denounce a crime or threat, they are unable to register and activate protection mechanisms, as the institutions of the state, including mobile justice units, are currently absent in rural areas. One social leader in the northeast region of Catatumbo notes that she feels abandoned by the state: “it’s like [the height of the conflict] again, when the state left us for dead at the hands of armed groups.”

Women’s Unique Protection Needs

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 recognizes women’s agency to build peace in post-conflict communities. Research shows that peace negotiations that involve the participation of women are more likely to last. Yet in Colombia, the promotion of women as peacebuilders has come without the necessary guarantees for women’s safety. Over the past years, hundreds of women running for political office or engaging in peacebuilding efforts in their communities have been targeted and even murdered.

The current crisis has intensified these challenges, laying bare the violence and gendered power dynamics that shape women’s complex security needs. Rather than include peacebuilding as yet another burden of “women’s work,” governments and international organizations that promote these activities need to take the risk of backlash seriously.

Despite new public health restrictions, women leaders braving the crisis in Colombia need continued domestic and international support, solidarity, and guarantees of security. This support should include humanitarian aid, access to justice in remote areas, and consultations with the social leaders themselves on how to best ensure their protection.

Julia Zulver is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Institute of Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies.